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Gawkers compete with efforts to herd elk

PENDLETON, Ore. – On a recent crisp winter morning, tribal and state wildlife staff spent several hours herding hundreds of elk into the foothills. Using all-terrain vehicles, they slowly moved the elk away from wheat fields, where the animals had been munching crops, and drove them toward more traditional winter range in the mountains.

Suddenly, a pickup truck roared onto the scene. The driver, eager to get a look at the elk, spooked the herd and sent the animals racing back downhill.

“The herd split up, and they lost all the ground they’d gained over the course of the morning,” said Carl Scheeler, Wildlife Program Manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The scenario is all too familiar for Scheeler and other biologists who know how skittish elk can be and also understand the public’s fascination with the creatures.

Scheeler said the elk wander to low-elevation areas after times of high snowfall, migrating down from the Blue Mountains. This year, more of the elk have ended up in wheat fields instead of their traditional winter grazing areas.

Feral horses make the problem worse, Scheeler said, particularly on the north side of the Umatilla River, grazing year-round on elk winter range. The horses make significant dents on the forage available for wintering elk and deer, which are forced to look elsewhere. As many as 6,000 elk ended up on low elevation winter range across the face of the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

“This is more elk than I have seen in the last 23 years working on the reservation,” Scheeler said.

This isn’t only a problem for farmers, he said. It’s also bad for the elk, whose systems are accustomed to drier, cured mountain forage. The microfauna in their stomachs can’t handle the fresh, green wheat, at least initially.

“The elk love it, but, they can’t digest it,” he said. “In essence, they can starve with a full stomach.”

The hit to the wheat crop is another concern. The impact in some areas has been significant, Scheeler said. Not only do the elk eat the crop, but they damage the plants themselves.

“When the ground isn’t frozen, their hooves expose the roots and provide a pathway for pathogens that can infect the root system,” he said.

Recently, after warming weather, most of the elk returned to higher ground on their own, and others returned after gentle coaxing. Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 stragglers remain, however, reluctant to leave the tasty wheat. Moving them isn’t easy.

Tribal and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists monitor the elk each day and conduct hazing operations if too many elk congregate in the wheat. Once the elk reach the foothills, the agencies sometimes use helicopters to move the animals the rest of the way.

Scheeler urged wildlife lovers to restrain their enthusiasm for seeing elk up close if they notice a large herd being directed upslope by a couple ATVs.

“Try to stay out of the way,” Scheeler said. “Try not to interfere with the movement of the animals.”